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Ephemera, 1977-1978

Baby, Baby, Baby

Last week, we talked about “Down a Long Lonely Road,” a demo from mid-to-late 1978 that falls short of being a “song” in the traditional sense. This week, we have “Baby, Baby, Baby”: another home recording from the same period, which comes at least a little closer to “song” territory. For one thing, “Baby, Baby, Baby” actually features instrumentation to go with its multi-tracked vocalizations: an acoustic guitar, to be exact, playing some funky licks reminiscent of the earlier demo “Rock Me, Lover.”

As the perfunctory title indicates, however, there isn’t much else to hold on to here. The only line Prince sings that approaches a complete sentence is, “You must know how bad I wanna be with you”; the rest of the lyrics are, well, “Baby, Baby, Baby,” along with a lot of the wordless falsetto crooning that would pepper his next four albums in particular. And that’s when he’s singing at all: for almost three quarters of the song, Prince drops the vocals and just vamps on the guitar, adding in some finger snaps and jazzy, Spanish-sounding soloing that recalls the original version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” It’s charming and catchy, but not exactly a buried classic; just another example of Prince getting some ideas on tape in the months leading up to the sessions for his second album.

What’s interesting about this track, if anything, is the window it provides into Prince’s nascent songwriting process. I’ve noted before that after his debut’s middling commercial performance, Prince explicitly wanted the follow-up to be a hit. From this perspective, a song like “Baby, Baby, Baby” can be seen as a deliberate back-to-basics move: scaling back from the eager-to-please multi-instrumental virtuosity of For You to just the bare essentials of a guitar, a pleasant melody, and lyrics about love (or at least lust) in its most basic, banal form. And Prince would indeed build from this foundation for his 1979 sophomore effort: there may not be one specific song on the record that sounds exactly like “Baby, Baby, Baby,” but its DNA is evident in pretty much every one.

Next time, we’ll look at one of the next links in the evolutionary chain between “Baby, Baby, Baby” and Prince. We’re getting there, I promise!

Categories
Ephemera, 1977-1978

1978 Instrumentals

One thing Prince established very early on was a near-constant rate of musical productivity: as we observed way back at the beginning of this blog, he spent the vast majority of his day-to-day adult life–not to mention a good amount of his childhood–participating in some form of songwriting, recording, rehearsal, or performance. So it should come as no surprise that when Prince moved into his first house in the summer of 1978, the otherwise-unassuming 5215 France Avenue in Edina, Minnesota brought with it another first: his first home studio. Indeed, according to his cousin and former Grand Central drummer Charles Smith, the rest of the house was mostly an afterthought for Prince: “The basement was full of equipment but he didn’t have any furniture in the house,” Smith told biographer Per Nilsen. “He didn’t have any carpets. He just had a rocking chair and a little TV for his video games.” Eventually Prince’s girlfriend at the time, Kim Upsher, would help decorate and make the place “look like a home” (Nilsen 1999 43). But it’s clear that creature comforts placed a distant second for Prince, below his ability to create whenever the muse struck him. The lifelong blurring of the lines between studio and living space that he’d set into motion while still living in the Andersons’ basement was, by mid-1978, in full swing.

The France Avenue “studio” wasn’t exactly Paisley Park, of course: just a basement space with instruments and a portable TEAC four-track reel-to-reel. But it did the job, giving Prince an opportunity to flesh out new ideas without booking expensive studio time–which, after the hefty recording cost of For You, probably came as a relief to the bean counters at W.B. Many of the demos for Prince’s second album were reportedly recorded at home, and a few of the tracks that ended up on 94 East’s infamous Minneapolis Genius compilation (more on that to come). There were also several songs known only by their titles: “Darlene Marie” (also known as “Darling Marie”), “Do It Again,” “Gypsy,” “I am You,” “I Met a Virgin Queen,” “I’m Leaving L.A.,” “Love Affair,” “Love of Mine,” “Rocking Chair,” and “We Would Like to See You Again,” as well as a re-recording of the 1976 demo “Rock Me, Lover.” And then there are the circulating recordings: starting with today’s six untitled instrumentals.

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Ephemera, 1975-1976 Lacunae Roundup Posts

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

Hi, everyone! In an effort to break up the flow of this blog a bit, I’d like to insert the occasional “Roundup” post whenever we come to the close of a particular phase of Prince’s musical career. So, now that we’re officially finished with 1976 ephemera and moving into For You territory, here are the songs so far. And hey, since everyone loves a totally subjective ranking–this is the Internet, is it not?–I’ll give them to you in ascending order of my personal preference:

9. Home Recordings, 1976 These probably shouldn’t even be on the list, as it’s a little unfair to consider them “songs.” What can I say, though, I dig some of ’em.

8. “If You See Me (Do Yourself a Favor)” Sorry, Pepé; Prince’s and Jesse’s versions both blow yours out of the water.

7. Moonsound Instrumentals The first time I posted this, I thought the legitimately funky “Jelly Jam” was recorded at Moonsound; it wasn’t, and as a result these recordings have dropped a bit in my esteem. Still, they show promise.

6. “Nightingale” Historically interesting and poignant, but so very twee.

5. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” More sexist than sexy, but also sort of endearingly dorky. It’s nice to know that at least 17-year-old Prince wasn’t smoother than 31-year-old me.

4. “I Spend My Time Loving You” Like “Nightingale,” this one’s a little on the twee side, but the vocal and guitar performances are moving beyond Prince’s years.

3. “Leaving for New York Like I said in the post, probably Prince’s most musically accomplished song to date. I slept on this one for ages, then I listened to it in the car and it just came alive. A sublime indication of a blossoming talent.

2. “Rock Me, Lover” It’s slight, sure, but like I said in the article, it offers a valuable glimpse of Prince’s future as a more feminist (or at least submissive) brand of lover. As teenage masturbatory fantasies go, I’ll take this over “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” any day. Also, great discussion with writer Jane Clare Jones in the comments.

1. “Sweet Thing” To be perfectly honest, this is the only song we’ve discussed so far that I really go out of my way to listen to. A beautiful, delicate cover version that I may even prefer to the original by Chaka Khan and Rufus. On a more personal note, this was the post that made Chaka retweet me and blow my blog the fuck up (at least for a couple of days). For that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Also, let’s not forget the two introductory posts that fill in a few early gaps in Prince’s recorded oeuvre. I obviously can’t rank these because I haven’t heard any of the songs (though I’m sure the one of five-year-old Skipper banging rocks together was dope):

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1965-1968
Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

Tomorrow, we continue with the next chapter of our journey: the series of studio recordings that ultimately resulted in Prince’s first album. If you’ve been rocking with me so far, I mean this sincerely: thank you so much. The response to this blog–especially these early, obscure entries–has honestly been beyond anything I dared to hope for. It’s so gratifying to hear from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976

Nightingale

We’ve already mentioned in passing how Prince’s celebrated musical heterogeneity–that genre- and race-agnostic blend of funk, soul, rock, and pop influences that would come to be known as the “Minneapolis Sound”–was at least in part a product of unique historical and geographic circumstances. It may be hard to believe today, when radio playlists are as standardized as they are irrelevant, but broadcasting in the pre-Clear Channel era was a highly localized industry. This not only made it possible for your proverbial Alan Freeds and Wolfman Jacks to wield an influence as tastemakers in their respective territories, but it also created a highly segregated musical landscape based on the perceived demands of regional audiences–which, let’s face it, often translated to the racist preconceptions of the advertising industry. In the business parlance of the times, an area populated primarily with White listeners was known as a “vanilla market.” And, with a mere 1.7 percent African American population as of the 1970 census, the Twin Cities were about as “vanilla” a market as they came.

What this meant, essentially, was a paucity of the kind of urban Black radio on which most of Prince’s peers from the rest of the country were raised: as biographer Dave Hill put it, “the people who controlled the airwaves of Minneapolis and St. Paul virtually declared that blacks did not exist” (Hill 18). The one station in the area that regularly played music by African American artists, KUXL, only broadcast from sunrise to sundown–keeping in mind that in the dead of winter, that could mean as early as 5:30 p.m.–and even then, it was predominantly a gospel station. Prince thus grew up on a musical diet that was a lot closer to what one might imagine for a White artist of his generation, tuning in after hours to the “progressive” FM rock station KQRS. “KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station,” he recalled to Minnesota Monthly in 1997. “That’s where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell” (Keller 1997). And if that sounds like an odd list of favorites for a Black teenager in the mid-’70s, their influence is clearly borne out in Prince’s music.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976

Rock Me, Lover

In our last post, I invoked that reliable old standby of pornographic schlock, the Penthouse Forum letter, as a point of comparison for Prince’s early 1976 song “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” Since we’re treading in similar thematic waters today, I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about the roots of the porn aesthetic in Prince’s musical persona.

Cultural critic Touré has written convincingly about how Prince’s rise to infamy coincided with the mainstreaming of pornographic imagery in American society in the 1970s and 1980s (Touré 72). As we’ll see in the weeks and months to come, porn aesthetics figured heavily in Prince’s developing persona, from the Dirty Mind album to Vanity 6 to the Purple Rain film. But its influence also (allegedly) went back much earlier, to his childhood–the proverbial “origin myth.” There’s a recurring story of a nine- or ten-year-old Prince coming across his mother‘s collection of pornographic literature; in some versions, she left it out deliberately, in a kind of passive-aggressive effort to teach him about the “birds and the bees.” “I think there was some kind of plan to initiate me heavy and quick,” Prince recalled in a 1997 television interview with comedian Chris Rock, “so I was given Playboy magazines, and there was erotic literature laying around that was very easily picked up… it was pretty heavy at the time. I think it really affected my sexuality a great deal” (VH1 1997).